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So Long, ‘Stephen Colbert’: How His Star-Studded Finale Sent Up and Outdid Talk-Show Schmaltz

So Long, 'Stephen Colbert': How His Star-Studded Finale Sent Up and Outdid Talk-Show Schmaltz

“The Colbert Report” is dead, but “Stephen Colbert” will live forever. On last night’s final episode, the performance artist-cum-talk show host inadvertently killed the Grim Reaper during his recurring “Cheating Death With Dr. Stephen T. Colbert, DFA” segment, and as a result became immortal. Like so much of the show, the gesture mixed absurdity with stealth sentimentality. Colbert is leaving his overconfident, underinformed persona behind as he heads to CBS to take over David Letterman’s late-night slot, but the character he created will live on, and not just on Hulu. Although he never (okay, rarely) broke character, Colbert somehow managed to convey that he was, underneath it all, sincere: You could tell that Colbert and “Colbert” both believed in something, even if it wasn’t the same thing.

Finales are always bound to disappoint: There’s no way Colbert and his staff could have equalled the highs of their nine-year-run in a single half-hour. But if the first few bits fell relatively flat, the mass singalong to “We’ll Meet Again” was seven minutes of television perfection, a fond farewell that in characteristic “Colbert” style sent up off-into-the-sunset schmaltz while breaking off a little piece for itself. Beginning with an old-fashioned stride onto the set by his longtime colleague Jon Stewart, the roster of guests stars swelled to included Randy Newman sitting at a convenient piano, and then grew exponentially: Michael Stipe, Kareem Abdul-Jabbar, Big Bird, even James Franco, who must have welcomed the opportunity to take his mind off “The Interview.” Was it a goof on cameo-stuffed viral stunts? Yup. Was it also a supremely satisfying example of the same? It sure was.

That, after all, was Colbert’s special magic: Not just dousing acid on the culture of blowhard pundits, but offering a strangely genteel alternative (except, that is, when he genuinely spoke truth to power). Colbert didn’t walk the line between satire and sincerity so much as he straddled it, working both sides simultaneously. Even Colbert knows that’s a hard act to follow, which is why he’s starting fresh at the “Late Show.” He ended his run not with a gag, but with a touching, almost imperceptible, tribute to his late father and two brothers, who were killed in a plane crash when he was 10. Like “Colbert,” himself, it’s a moment that will never die.

More reaction to the “Colbert Report” finale:

James Poniewozik, Time

It’s a rare man who gets to attend his own funeral. It’s an even luckier man who gets to cheat his own death, dust his prints off the murder weapon, read his own eulogy, and rise to live again in another form.

That’s what Stephen Colbert did Thursday night with “Stephen Colbert,” in a show that sent his bloviating host character — one of the greatest sustained performances in pop culture, TV or otherwise — off into TV eternity. And his final Colbert Report was both a sweet ending and a perfect summation of the show’s spirit — smart and surreal, sly and sincere. The finale nodded to the massive creation that Colbert wrought over nine years, and — as he flew off with Santa, a unicorn Abraham Lincoln, and Alex Trebek — promised something different to come.

Todd VanDerWerff, Vox

Colbert and his team had a tough balancing act. They could skew toward sincerity and throw off the mix that had made their program so beloved, or they could skew toward sarcasm and perhaps not allow their most faithful fans a little time to grieve the end of a show they loved.

Truth be told, the writers didn’t exactly nail this mixture. The “immortality” gambit was shoehorned into the proceedings, and the jokes could have been sharper. (The bit about the plumber whose truck turned up in the hands of ISIS felt a little too tossed-off.) But roughly everything from “We’ll Meet Again” through the ending was so perfectly pitched that nobody’s going to care how shaky some of the early material was.

Hillary Busis, Entertainment Weekly

Ending the show this way was a savvy move that helps remind audiences that, yes, the “Stephen Colbert” we’ve been watching for nearly a decade isn’t the real Stephen Colbert. Symbolically, it’s the perfect way to transition into Colbert finally taking on the role of his true self. At the same time, Fake Colbert’s passage into “immortality” indicates that Real Colbert may not be ready to let go of his old persona quite yet; after all, the man who helmed the Report is just a sleigh ride away.

Noel Murray, Daily Beast

The man behind the desk is a fictional character—a ferocious patriot who exposes the limits of a rigid ideology with every half-thought-out proclamation. But the real Colbert has always been on that stage too. For a character who’s meant to embody the worst of 21st century broadcasting, this Stephen Colbert has been so easy to like—which made it all the harder to watch him fly away.

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